UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The modernist American sonnet Zuk, Edward


The sonnet is the oldest prescribed form in English poetry, and it has enjoyed an almost uninterrupted popularity from the sixteenth century to the present. In the first half of the twentieth century, the sonnet came under attack from a number of influential poets and critics. Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and, to a lesser extent, Wallace Stevens all declared that the sonnet was an outmoded, "baneful" form that was unable to meet the poetical demands of the modern age. In spite of these criticisms, the sonnet flourished in the hands of American poets of the period. E A. Robinson, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, among others, all wrote important sonnets, meeting these criticisms of the form by introducing radical new innovations into the sonnet even as they managed to retain many familiar conceits and stylistic features that date back to the English Renaissance. Robinson adapted the sonnet to express narrative rather than lyric conventions, while Frost employed the sonnet to express non-Platonic views of poetic structure and order. Millay combined traditional and modern imagery and diction in her sonnets, while Cummings organized his efforts in the form by techniques that were originally developed for free verse. This thesis explores these and other contributions to the sonnet and the new standards that were set for its subject matter, imagery, language, and structure. By demonstrating the importance of these developments, this study illuminates the formal inventiveness that was so prominent in American poetry during the Modernist era.

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